Windsor Castle. Even the name sounded worthy of our amazement. Needless to say we were already impressed with our surroundings. And then we saw the table. It was a dining room table that must have been 30 feet long at least. We imagined dinner parties requiring shuffleboard paddles to pass the potatoes and walkie-talkies for meaningless conversation. We continued to stare, mouths agape when an elderly man suddenly an elderly man broke the silence by muttering to his wife.
“You know, dear, it’s really not that impressive.”
She nodded solemnly and the couple continued on their way. As our small tour group stood within the cavernous dining room, still admiring the polished silver candlesticks, the lace tablecloth, the gold-plated dishware, and the behemoth table I couldn’t help but wonder what the old man’s dining room looked like.
From Windsor Castle we traveled to Stonehenge. Due to the heightened security after 9/11 we were forced to stand behind guardrails placed 20 feet from the monumental stones. It didn’t matter. I was again at a loss for words, unable to breathe, think, or fathom what I was seeing. These ancient stones, weighing as much as several cars, were manually dragged for miles before being arranged in their current position. It was an incredible feat for ancient man and the proof of this marvel was standing directly before me.
I looked around to try to get a glimpse of these architects. I thought for sure that they must somehow be amongst the tourists. Surely, if they could create such an immortal work of art then they too must still exist today. Alas, the only people surrounding me were only those who came to ogle the monument. Sleep deprived tourists and tour guides chattering about nothing and everything, and teenagers trying to sneak away from the boredom of rocks were the only living beings I could see. No matter how long I looked, the ancient masons never appeared. With one wistful look back into the miserable rainy country-side, I said goodbye to the beauty of the stones and boarded the bus.
Our small entourage left England and traveled to Rome by train. We spent two days visiting various cathedrals, the Pantheon, and the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. The tour guide pointed out the spot where Caesar, on the Ides of March, uttered the famous words, “Et tu Brutus.” I made sure to have my picture taken on the spot where he was murdered by his friends. The stunning ancient Roman architecture was enhanced by the warm Italian sun and the smell of home cooked Italian breads and pastas. The tall, dark, and handsome Italian men only added to the mythical beauty of the city. It was as close to heaven as one could get here on Earth.
The pièce de résistance of our time in Rome was an afternoon at the Coliseum. Standing one hundred fifty-seven feet tall, built entirely out of concrete and stone in the year 70 A.D., it was almost otherworldly. It was also being renovated. Plywood, plaster, and jackhammers littered the old dirt floor of the structure. We were allowed inside to walk along the small strip of dirt that was left uncovered for tourists. It was incredible to think about the number of men who died on that very ground we on which we now walked. As I looked around the six acre expanse, I could not even imagine the pain, fear, excitement, and celebration that occurred in this spot over one thousand years ago. At sunset we left the derelict ruins, I turned back to see her one last time and noticed her old-world beauty despite being covered in plastic to protect the new plaster from the rain.
Before we knew it our group of expats ended up in Pompeii. Despite being ravaged by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. the city was still beautiful. The frescos in the buildings were still very much intact. The colors nearly as vibrant as the day they were painted, ironically due to the volcanic ash that destroyed the civilization. The elaborate homes shot two, sometimes even three, stories in the air. Our tour guide exuberantly gave us a tour of one of the local brothels in the Red Light district in Pompeii. Our guide explained that, in the event a patron was unable to read, the services offered were painted in alarmingly vivid detail on the walls of prostitute’s suite. Should a tourist in ancient Pompeii be in need of a brothel, phallic symbols lead the way down the streets. However, the humor and beauty of Pompeii was still overshadowed by the dark mass of Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance. The island museum includes the mummies of those buried in the ash: a mother clutching children with mouths screaming in terror, a lone boy curled into the fetal position, a pregnant woman wrapped in a man’s arms. As our boat took us past Vesuvius on our way back to the main land, I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to live in Pompeii all those centuries ago.
Our troupe ended our tour of Europe in the City of Lights; Paris, France. We spent the next four days sampling the famous pastries, visiting the cathedrals, and viewing the monuments. We devoted an entire day to the Eiffel Tower. While we waited in anticipation to travel the expansive heights of the tower we stood on the grassy knolls taking the usual “gag” photos of the famous monument. When our turn finally arrived and we were able to ascend to the top and the view was spectacular. We were greeted with visions of The Cathedral of Notre Dame on the river, painters sitting on the banks of the Seine, farmers markets, and the general hustle and bustle of the city. We were drunk on the sights and sounds of the city.
Our final destination was the famous Louvre Museum. It was the final day of our journey and we were short on time. We were given guide books and were told to choose what we wanted to visit carefully as we could only stay for three hours. Being in the Louvre, we could not miss out on the chance to see the Mona Lisa. The original version of that famed painting that Michelangelo gave the world during the Renaissance was in this place. Our group marched through the museum, passing up many other famous works of art on our way to the Mona Lisa. We were on a mission.
As we approached the hall holding world renowned masterpiece, we were met with a formidable queue. Still we were on a mission so we decided to wait. And wait. And wait. We waited for an hour and a half. Finally, we reached the viewing platform and before us hung the Mona Lisa.
I stood there. On either side I was squished between a sweaty Italian man and a fat German woman who was gesticulating wildly to her husband. A group of Asian tourists smashed in behind me, taking photos with film cameras, they used my head as a tripod. Still I just stood there and stared at the Mona Lisa and I was taken aback by what I saw. I observed the diminutive stature, examined the public hype, and thought about the amount of time I had spent waiting for this moment. As I turned to leave the Mona Lisa mosh pit I thought to myself, you know, it’s really not that impressive.